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Made upon Andrzej Żuławski’s return to Poland following decades of working abroad, the polarising Szamanka (She-Shaman, 1996) was once winkingly referred to in the press as “Last Tango in Warsaw”. Teetering between nihilistic humour and horror, this tale of sexual debauchery and obsessions was voted the worst Polish film ever made in 2004, yet during its initial release the film proved hugely popular among the student crowd in Warsaw.

With the dust from the fall of the Iron Curtain still hanging in the atmosphere, this strange postmodern howl of a film must have resonated with the undercurrents of listlessness and despair that flowed through post-communist Warsaw. Now that Żuławski’s formerly maligned Possession (1981) has been reclaimed as a horror masterpiece, perhaps it is also time for Szamanka to be more widely seen.

It begins with a twitchy gesture, whose disquieting, nervous energy would continue to inform the film’s jittery montage rhythm. The camera follows a woman’s finger as it erratically taps on an attractive glass case where a range of colourful snacks are on display. Uttered over a keyboard-inflected score which recalls the eerie music of giallo films, her incongruous order of a plate of brains and a raspberry popsicle is unnerving. And yet, such a request is entirely befitting of the film’s She-Shaman, a beautiful college student known only by her sexualised nickname Włoszka, which means ‘the Italian’.

Iwona Petry’s Włoszka is an animalistic presence prone to passionate, childlike outbursts. The way she moves through the city is markedly feral. She doesn’t walk, but rather staggers or sprints around, continually bumping into people and knocking over objects on the way. Isabelle Adjani’s housewife in Possession oscillates between her prim domestic façade and her sexual enslavement to a gory tentacle demon, but Włoszka is all id. Her primal instincts float to the surface. When she comes face to face with an ancient artefact locked in a case, she presses her red lips to the glass panel, as if she will suck the life out of the inanimate object, before convulsing and falling to the ground in a heap.

Isabelle Adjani in Possession (1981)

While Włoszka behaves like she is in a shamanic trance, there also exists the mummified remains of a 2,000-year-old shaman. Sporting a sickly yellow hue, the corpse is at the centre of an archaeological dig performed by Michał (Bogusław Linda), an anthropologist at the University of Warsaw. Although Michał shows his gentle side in tending to the shaman and his ancient sack of psychedelic mushrooms, his first interaction with Włoszka is marred by sexual violence. During a showing of his brother’s former apartment for rent, Michał forces himself on her. The brutal act is set to militaristic music, whose harsh drum beats recall the cacophonous noises of the grimy train that Włoszka takes when she visits her family’s apartment in the suburbs. It is as if the very fabric of the city is tied up in randomised violence.

Much of Szamanka continues to link troubling human behaviours with ominous architectural details found in Warsaw. It is worth noting that, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and increasing investment from the West, the city went through a gradual urban transformation during the 1990s, with the erection of new shopping malls, skyscrapers and housing. None of these developments are in evidence in Szamanka, and nor are the more classically beautiful sights of the city, with the camera drifting instead through dilapidated mental health wards, dimly lit street tunnels and dirty train toilets. Włoszka is constantly shown walking in front of imposing walls splattered with graffiti. As a sense of isolation lingers over these images, it feels as if the Berlin Wall has never fallen at all.

Indeed, while Szamanka features numerous supernatural and horror elements, the Warsaw setting firmly grounds the film in the country’s history. During a volatile embrace during which Michał asks Włoszka to spit in his mouth and licks his lips, the pair stand in front of the Warsaw Uprising Monument. Depicting a group of soldiers charging forward, this colossal bronze structure commemorates the 1944 uprising, when much of the city was systematically destroyed by German forces. The event is also central to the relationship between Poland and Russia, since the Polish resistance movement was largely crushed due to inaction by the Soviet Union.

To set an erotically charged moment against such a historically loaded sculpture is an unusual choice, yet the scene exemplifies how Szamanka views sex as a reaction to the grey hopelessness of the characters’ environment. In the same way as Włoszka’s red lips clash against the black metal of the monument, the feverish lighting of the lengthy sex scenes between her and Michał provide a sharp contrast to the austerity of Warsaw, offering a moment of seeming defiance against the rise of the Catholic right in 1990s Poland.

In Szamanka, flesh can be revolting – a particularly nauseating sequence involves a close-up of live rats crawling inside a meat grinder – but it can also be erotic and even rejuvenating. Above all, it provokes, in the same way that the film’s bloody conclusion, which is too bizarre and otherworldly to be given away here, can leave viewers scrambling for answers. In spite of its transgressive experimentation, Szamanka, penned by the feminist writer Manuela Gretkowska, defies easy categorisation. Sadly, under Żuławski’s direction, the film’s gruelling nature drove its star Iwona Petry into clinical depression. To this day, Szamanka remains the talented actress’s only feature.

Sight and Sound June 2022

In this issue, we join Mia Hansen-Løve on Bergman Island. Also, we speak to David Lynch and more on the digital revolution, take a trip to the movies with Joachim Trier, and hear from Terence Davies and John Waters.

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